Hello again! Sorry it has been so long again since I was last in touch, I have come a long way since I last wrote. In fact all the way from Agra to Goa which is 1709 km as the crow flies but I have gone round the houses. The long and short of it is that I have seen many forts, palaces and temples and am now officially forted, palaced and templed out! I will not bore you with all the details; I will just give you the highlights.
Firstly, in Jaisalmer we visited an observatory built many, many years ago by one of the Maharaja's (King's). It houses the world's largest sun dial which is accurate to 2 seconds- We tested it…it works! At the time of our visit they were carrying out some renovation work. I have included a picture. Please note the bamboo scaffolding and the fact that the only thing holding the man on the platform up is the 2 men at the top sitting on either end of the rope! Health and Safety what?! We also visited the fort there which is India's oldest living fort.
Whilst in Jaisalmer I took the opportunity with 2 Swiss girls from the group to purchase my train ticket from Mumbai to Goa. This was an experience in itself! The Indians have no concept of queuing. Luckily we met an English couple in the queue and between us we managed to decipher the system. Basically- Scramble! Some genius came up with the idea of having a ladies queue and a gent's queue for the same window. This may have worked if maybe you alternate men and women or actually did queue. But what actually happens is women scramble from the left and men from the right. Whoever has the sharpest elbows and can stuff their form through the small hole in the cashier's window first, gets served. Between the 5 westerners we managed to barricade off the ignorant Indians.
One night was spent in a beautiful tented camp out in the Thar Desert. It took a 2 hour camel trek to get there. At least it would have done had I not been sick 15 minutes into the ride! Instead of enjoying the rest of the night dancing with the others to live music under the stars, I spent it rushing to the toilet along with a few others from the group. Unfortunately out of the 13 of us, 12 of us were sick at some point during the tour to varying degrees.
Something that has been a real highlight for me is going to really remote villages. This is something that I would not have got the chance to do had I not done a tour. Its amazes me that people still live like this! In the main village that we visited, Chandelao, women still have to walk to the local stepping well to collect water and then carry it back to the village on their heads. This is their only source of water and after seeing it I don't think I would fancy drinking it. Their high-tech water filter system consists of stretching a piece of material over the top of the pot to stop any big bits floating in.
In this village we went on a jeep safari to local villages. We saw some endangered deer called black box and blue bulls. The male black boxes have really attractive twirly horns that resemble cork screws. In one of the neighboring villages we were invited into a local family's home. Their home, as many others are, was constructed of stones, mud, wooden beams and cow poo and had a thatched roof. I know the thought of cow poo sounds disgusting…and I couldn't get my head around it until I saw it but it is actually really clean! They spread it on the floor when it's wet and let it set. This prevents the mud floor from cracking and also acts as an insect repellent. Whilst we were there they made us a local favorite- Opium tea. This is made from the crushed shells of the Opium pods and they drink it on special occasions such as birthdays, weddings etc. It just tasted like normal tea. Tradition states that it must be 'slurped' from someone else's hand. This is because soldiers used to drink it in this manor before going to battle to give them courage and strength and a sense of brotherhood. This is an alternative to alcohol and it is legal to grow with permission from the Government. Apparently it takes about 50ml to feel any effects of it and they have problems with a lot of older men being addicted to it!
The kids in the small villages are a real highlight. They are obsessed with asking you to take a picture and then seeing them back on the digital display. They don't want money or anything else from you, just a photo. They are fascinated by it. Everyone stopped what they were doing as we drove by to wave, and kids would try to run along the side of the jeep with you trying to give you a 'high five'…again, typical India…no fear for their personal safety! We also stopped at a local potter's yard where we had a demonstration of how they make the pots to carry the water. Instead of having a turntable powered by a pedal as we have, they have a large round flat stone that relies entirely on momentum to keep spinning. They asked if anyone fancied a go so I volunteered. I tried to recreate the small vase that the potter has made but my attempt looked more like an ash tray!
Another interesting experience was my first experience of Paan. Paan is basically a beetle leaf stuffed with various things. You can get different types, such as tobacco, but I tried what was supposed to be a fruity one full of berrys and coconut. The indians use it as a natural mouth wash/freshener. I had wanted to try it since I got here so when the opportunity arose in a Gujerati restaurant, myself and a guy on my tour Ewan took advantage. The technique seemed simple enough- Abhi advised us to put it all in our mouths at once and then chew and chew and chew. I was intrigued to see Indians spitting out what appeared to be mouthfuls of blood in the street (this turned out to be the by-product of Paan). The first difficulty came fitting it all in my mouth at once, but Abhi assured me that it would shrink with every chew. From that first bite I knew I had made a horrible mistake! Mine was filled with anything but berries and coconut and it was like biting down on a birdsnest! Ewan followed suit, and somehow after a few minutes of chewing managed to generate some of the red juice that the indians do, and spat it out in the small bowls provided. When I attempted this, all that came out was something that resembled chewed up dry shredded wheat. It was not a pleasant experience, well not for me at least. The rest of my group who sat and observed found it very entertaining!
I would love to tell you that I have been staying in some really awful dingy hostels, but in fact I haven't…well not yet anyway. The accommodation on the tour was described as 'basic'. It is certainly not what I would class as basic. We stayed in 2 converted forts which were amazing (I have included a photo of the one in Chandelao). I am currently staying a small guest house complex in Anjuna in Goa. It is called Peace land and couldn't have a more suitable name. It's a nice relaxing change from some of the big cities like Mumbai that I have visited.
I left my tour group back in Mumbai and am now ready to tackle India on my own…well as ready as you ever can be for India! It was sad to say goodbye to everyone, met some fantastic people. Everyone was so different but we all got on really well. I like to think that I will keep in touch with some of them at least. Luckily 2 of the Swiss girls in the group were also heading down to Goa so I managed to tackle the 11 hour train journey with them. They are only here for a few more days though before flying home.
So that's me up to date. I plan to spend the next 10 days or so here in Goa (relaxing after the frantic tour!) and then head down to Kerala to get lost in the lazy backwaters.
Hope this finds you well,
Love as always,
P.s. I just want to say CONGRATULATIONS to Lisa and Dave again as they have got engaged…Yey!! Am very happy for you both and I will have a cocktail (or 2) in your honour!
P.P.s. The rest of you have been rubbish at letting me know what's going on back home…please try harder!